WASHINGTON (AP/7News) — The Republican-led House approved a resolution Wednesday that would block a District of Columbia police accountability bill, further escalating the feud over the right to self-government in the nation’s capital.
The House voted 229-189 on the measure — called a disapproval resolution — marking the third time this year that House Republicans have sought to overturn local D.C. legislation, with some Democratic help, claiming officials have been soft on crime in the midst of a multi-year spike. But the bill is unlikely to advance in the Democratic-led Senate, and President Joe Biden has promised a veto.
Republicans pressed ahead, saying congressional scrutiny of the District's laws is long overdue.
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“Just because Congress has not been fulfilling this role in recent decades is not a reason to avoid this responsibility now, especially when we know the nation’s capital city is plunging into a crime crisis,” Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, said during a debate Wednesday.
In 2022, there were 203 homicides in the District, about a 10% drop after years of steady increases. Homicides in the city had risen for four years straight, and the 2021 murder count of 227 was the highest since 2003. The city’s police union said in a statement that changes proposed by Republicans would “lead to violent crime rates exploding even more than they already have.”
Local D.C. politicians reacted to the vote Wednesday:
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson: “This was no surprise, but unfortunate nevertheless,” Mendelson said. “Republicans say public safety is not a partisan issue, but this vote clearly was. This vote was yet another step in their 2024 campaign to make Democrats, and Democrat-dominated cities, look bad.
“But the truth is, this is all about police accountability,” Mendelson continued. “It’s incredible that Republicans think accountability is anti-police. Last I checked, DC Residents want good cops. Good cops are not afraid of being held accountable for their actions.
“The Republicans demanded that I and Councilmember Charles Allen answer to their extreme rhetoric about lawlessness and disrespect for human life. They weren’t interested in our answers. Instead, they’re using the District once again for national campaign purposes.
“If the Republicans truly were sincere about helping the District fight crime, they would not propose cutting resources to DC law enforcement and our court system, and instead add resources so that more cases can be prosecuted. A two-thirds declination rate at the US Attorney’s Office has to be discouraging to the morale of our police officers.”
Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton: “I am disappointed, but not surprised, that the House passed today’s disapproval resolution to invalidate the District’s policing reform legislation passed by the democratically-elected D.C. Council. Almost 700,000 people live in the nation’s capital, and they are worthy and capable of governing their own local affairs. From today’s vote, I can only conclude that House Republicans disagree with me, believing instead that D.C. residents, a majority of whom are Black and Brown, are incapable and unworthy of the same respect afforded to residents of their own districts. I cannot emphasize strongly enough how offensive that notion is to my values, goals, and more than 30 years of work advocating for D.C. residents in Congress.
“President Biden has committed to vetoing the disapproval resolution if it comes to his desk, a scenario I will not allow to occur. As D.C.’s sole member of Congress, I will work to ensure Republicans’ undemocratic, paternalistic disapproval resolution makes no progress in the Senate.”
D.C. Attorney General Brian L. Schwalb: “Today, national politicians, seeking to score points for their next hometown election, voted to overturn a law that is essential to public safety and effective policing in the District of Columbia.
By allowing the Chief of Police to discipline officers who violate peoples’ constitutional rights, prohibiting dangerous tactics like chokeholds, and enhancing police transparency, the Comprehensive Policing and Justice Reform Amendment Act increases trust between police officers and the communities they serve. Every good police officer knows that enhanced community trust allows them to perform their jobs more safely and effectively, ultimately improving public safety overall.
Out-of-state politicians don’t know or care more about public safety in Washington, DC than the more than 700,000 residents who live here. Instead of using DC as a political football, members of Congress should focus on addressing the needs of their own communities and allow the residents of the District of Columbia to legislate for ourselves.”
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"D.C. residents deserve better than the reckless policies enacted by Chairman Mendelson, Councilmember Allen, and their misguided colleagues," stated D.C. Police Union Chairman Gregg Pemberton. "Their so-called 'reforms' are sabotaging the District and endangering all who live, visit, and work here. Today's action by Congress is a victory for common sense and the hardworking women and men of the Metropolitan Police Department."
"Our city needs solutions, not rhetoric or misguided legislation." Chairman Pemberton continued, "together, we can build real reforms prioritizing true accountability and transparency while maintaining public safety for all."
Congressional oversight of the district is written into the Constitution, and lawmakers have frequently used methods such as budget riders to alter D.C. laws on issues ranging from abortion funding to marijuana legalization.
Finally able to set the agenda as the majority in the House, Republicans held back-to-back votes last month to overturn a sweeping rewrite of the criminal code passed by the D.C. Council last year. A second vote was on nullifying a new law that would grant noncitizens the right to vote in local elections.
The GOP-backed resolution overturning the district's criminal code garnered some Democratic support, and Biden signed it into law after the measure passed the Senate overwhelmingly.
But Democrats appeared to draw a line in the sand against overturning the new police accountability package, which is similar to a bill the party passed in the House after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in the summer of 2020. That bill never became law.
The package passed by the D.C. Council would extend temporary law enforcement transparency and accountability measures first approved after the murder of Floyd, including a ban on the use of chokeholds, requiring officers to use de-escalation tactics before use of force and providing the public access to body camera records. It also reflects similar measures that Biden included in an executive order last spring for federal law enforcement.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said last month that while Biden "does not support every provision in the policing bill” passed by the D.C. Council, he won’t support efforts to override it. She added, “The president believes that building community trust is integral to fighting crime.”
Washington’s criminal code hasn’t been updated substantially since it was first drafted in 1901, and criminal justice experts say that Black people have been disproportionately affected by the criminal laws, similar to many other cities.
The recent sparring in Congress has opened a new and openly combative phase in the District’s tortured relationship with the federal government.
Democrats support statehood for the District and have defended the Council’s right to govern as they see fit. They have called the latest effort by Republicans a violation of Home Rule, which allows the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability to essentially vet all new D.C. laws, although historically it has only altered or limited new laws through budget riders.
“The House of Representatives, in which the nearly 700,000 District of Columbia residents have no voting representation, is attempting to nullify legislation enacted by the local legislature whose members are elected by DC residents,” Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C’s nonvoting delegate in the Congress, said on the House floor.
“By scheduling this vote, I can only conclude that the Republican leadership believes that D.C. residents, the majority of whom are black and brown, are unworthy of governing themselves.”